Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Border Country

For most Canadians, Thanksgiving is a time we draw closer to the home fires. It's a time to reunite with friends and family over a nice turkey dinner. For me, it's one last chance to get out to the vast land near the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. I always joke that my favorite Thanksgiving dinner consists of wieners and beans. This year was no different. Friday after work, I packed up the trailer and dragged it out to Sandy Point, a rustic campground (near Empress, Alberta) on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.

The country near the border has a number of attractions. One of them is "The Forks", where the Red Deer River flows into the South Saskatchewan River. In the fall, the poplars that line the riverbanks are bright yellow and the fescue of the surrounding hills is a light golden color. The scene at The Forks is one of the greatest panoramas one is likely to see on the Canadian prairies and it always fills me with excitement. I have a personal connection to this place. I stare across the South Saskatchewan River from my perch atop the "Bulls Forehead" and recall how it felt on July 2, 2004 after completing a solo journey down the entire length of the Red Deer River. This locale also has much historic significance. John Palliser admired the view from the tongue of high land between the two rivers in 1860 during his explorations of western Canada. Peter Fidler built his short lived and ill-fated Chesterfield House in the valley in the 1700's. This Hudson Bay Company trading post was abandoned after attacks by Blackfoot and Gros Ventre warriors resulted in the fatalities of a number of men. The raiding party paraded around their outpost and the competing Northwest Company fort with the scalps of the dead, mounted on a long pole. The surviving traders managed to escape by stealing away in the dark of night.

The other major attraction in the area is the Great Sand Hills. Most people think of this region as being only sand dunes. There are dunes, but they are just a part of this unique ecosystem. There is a cover of fescue, cactus, sage and junipers overlying most of the sand. Herds of pronghorn and deer and even the odd moose roam the area. In the autumn one is likely to see large flocks of sandhill cranes. Thousands of white fronted, Canada and snow geese can be seen right along the border in the evening as I head back toward camp. In the golden light of the setting sun, it is a spectacle that has made an indelible mark on my psyche.
There is so much to see and do in this huge area, but one must be ready to travel many miles to take it all in. Most of the local services are intermittent at best, so be prepared to be self sufficient if you plan on visiting there, especially in the autumn. Good weather and blue skies are the rule in this semi arid area at the heart of the "Palliser Triangle". I find it worth cooking my Thanksgiving dinner on a stick, just so I can get in one more camping trip before the winter months.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Last Hummingbirds

“…if I had continued consuming quantities of beer, slowly becoming louder and less coherent as the afternoon progressed the hummingbirds would have recognized my actions as normal…”

composite from video

On September 1st, I saw hummingbirds for one final time this year. My neighbor told me that they are usually gone by the Labour Day weekend. Just the weekend before I had spent an afternoon shooting some video of them coming and going from our feeder.

It was a spur-of -the-moment thing. That Sunday was a lovely summer day and I was sitting in the yard enjoying a cold beer. Suddenly one of the Ruby-throated birds hovered in front of my face for a few seconds then disappeared. It was one of those things that (at one time) would have caused me to question if it really happened. Now I was becoming accustomed to that sort of thing. Soon three hummingbirds were chasing each other around the yard and taking turns at our feeder. Being the compulsive videographer that I am, I headed into the house to grab whatever gear I could find. After rummaging through my computer room amidst some cursing, I emerged from the house with my video camera and tripod as well as other assorted accessories.

I set up the camcorder on its tripod and aimed it at what seemed like the most popular “flower” on the feeder and zoomed in as tight as the lens would go. Then I sat a little way from my camcorder with the remote button in one hand and waited. It was that simple… Well not quite. It seldom is. I had thought “just this once…”, but no.

Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (still from video)

 Hummingbirds live in another dimension, separate from our slow-motion lives. Everything they do is at a pace several times faster than us. I’m sure they regard our lumbering motions as we do a snail or a tortoise. Thus I reasoned that unlike many other creatures that I have attempted to video, they were oblivious to our habits and wouldn’t even notice anything different.

The “flower” that I had observed  them go to 9 times out of 10 suddenly fell out of favor and they began to use the other three randomly, if at all. They certainly seemed to know something was up and began to act cautiously when approaching the feeder. Animals are certainly more intelligent and observant than humans give them credit for. They had noticed that I was doing something out of the ordinary. I am sure if I had continued consuming quantities of beer, slowly becoming louder and less coherent as the afternoon progressed the hummingbirds would have recognized my actions as normal (for this locale anyway) and continued unworried about their business. They had noticed that now my motions were deliberate and I had suddenly got all quiet and still and they sensed that this was certainly not ordinary behaviour (for a Sunday afternoon anyways). I soon realized that if I was going to get any video at all, I would have to get more serious and abandon my remote-in-one-hand-beer-in-the-other strategy.

I gathered my resources once again for an all out assault. This time I mounted a shotgun microphone under the feeder on a boom stand and pointed it skyward. For enhanced audio I mounted a wireless lapel microphone on a willow branch next to the feeder. I realized the gaudy red t-shirt I was wearing was just the color that would draw the attention of said hummers, so I figured I might as well don my customary camouflage jacket, pants and cap that I had used many times for getting closer to my quarry. I also installed a 2X extender on my camcorder and pulled up a chair near to a bush so I could manually and discretely operate the camera. I focused, put on my headphones and waited patiently for the hummingbirds to return, which they soon did.

As it often does whenever I am shooting video, the afternoon passed quickly.  I tried some different apertures and number of neutral density filters. I even tried varying my frame rate from my usual 24P to 60P (for slow motion shots).  I activated my “cache” feature on my camcorder, which actually allows me to start recording a set number of seconds before I hit the record button. Perhaps this seems impossible to some of you, but it is a dream feature for any nature videographer. The hummingbird suddenly appears at the feeder, I hit “record” and the 2-5 seconds previous to my pressing the button are added to the front of the clip (allowing me to capture the hummer arriving).

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Still from video)

Shadows covered the feeder by late afternoon and the hummingbirds abandoned their feeding - which was just as well, because the lighting was decidedly poor. I retired to my computer room to review the clips I had captured that day. Some were better than others. A couple of them were exceptional. This is typical for me. Every time I step behind the camera, I learn something new. I am happy if I get 10 seconds of “good stuff” for every day of shooting.

The ruby-throated hummingbirds have migrated now. The days are cooler and soon winter will be upon us. Perhaps I will use some of the video I took that afternoon or maybe it will just be added to my collection of “stock” footage. Maybe one day this winter when the wind is howling and the world is gray, I will review my clips with just a small hint of a smile upon my lips.


Monday, 5 September 2011

Another Day of Fishing

"who could make up something like that? And there were no planes..."

In the late 1990’s my wife Bev and I both got quite serious about fishing. We had always fished – it was part of the many outdoors activities that we did, but at one point we began to do less hiking and more fishing. Fishing is one of those things in which you have to pay your dues. I would catch the odd fish or two and sometimes have a good day, but as I began to spend more time fishing I began to consistently catch more fish. As I became a better angler, it became something I wanted to do more of. It was the proverbial vicious circle and verged on fanaticism.
One of our favorite places to go was near the forks of the Livingstone and Oldman Rivers. In the fall we would pull our old Boler trailer west through “The Gap” into the "Old Man’s Playground" and camp near the forks for two weeks. A familiar pattern would begin. Every morning we would have breakfast, pack our lunch, sort out our gear and we were off...
The area west of the Livingstone Range presents many fishing opportunities. Our trips would usually begin with a warm-up day catching small cutthroat trout above the Oldman falls. We would fish the area between the falls and the forks for larger cut-throats and bull trout. There were massive bull trout in the Livingstone River and in the Oldman below the forks, along with larger cutthroat/rainbow trout hybrids. Fishing “The Gap” (where the Oldman River cuts through the Livingstone Range) can be especially challenging and rewarding. It is difficult and dangerous wading, but the cutthroat and rainbow are larger and feistier and the rocky scenery is amazing.
We are not fly-fishers, but we use lightweight 5’6 rods with small reels and light (4-6lb.) line. Our technique is to present small spinners and plugs (fashioned to look like minnows or small rainbow trout) to our quarry. We often wear neoprene waders and felt soled boots, with fishing vests and ball caps. Polarized sunglasses are also indispensible accessories. This isn’t the placid angling most people expect. We would walk miles of river every day. Those of our friends, who say they like to go fishing, would only come once. Most evenings we would return to camp, eat supper and retire to bed. Even we would tire of this pattern of living and every so many days would take a break.  This would often consist of doing some "lazy-man fishing" at our favorite Arctic Grayling fishery; Bear Pond.
One particular autumn we drove north along the trunk road and then turned east, passing south of Plateau Mountain and over Wilkinson's Summit to Bear Pond. It wasn't the electric blue fall day that we expect in Alberta. Instead it was gray and overcast. We walked the half mile up the hill and found the pond shrouded in fog.  The weather didn't stop us. We had a fantastic day, chucking oversized spoons to the voracious grayling. Between the two of us, we caught (and released) nearly 40 fish. I won't say who caught the most, but her name begins with Bev. It was one of the best days of a wonderful two weeks of fishing. We couldn't resist stopping to fish a pool full of cutthroat near the Livingstone River Bridge on the way back to camp. I tried to tune-in a radio station for a weather report, but all I could get was one endless stream of country music with no commentary. The sky closed in on camp and it began to rain. We warmed up in the trailer, cooked supper and went to bed...
The next day was a beautiful day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. I notice a couple of people in the campground and I got chatting with one of them. He was an ex-navy man from Seattle, which didn't surprise me. I seemed to meet many Americans there in the fall. He said they were supposed to drop their son at the Calgary airport that day, but of course there was no need for that now. When I asked him why not, he looked at me strangely and asked "you don't know, do you?” The things he told me after that left me disturbed and incredulous. It was September 12, 2001.
The first thing he said was "have you seen any planes overhead for the last day or so?” I thought about it and realized that I had not. He went on to tell me about all the things that had happened on the previous day, while we fished. We went down to the Livingstone that afternoon. As we walked the river, I couldn't get the things he had told me out of my head. I could scarcely believe them, but who could make up something like that? And there were no planes... When I got back to camp, I found a copy of the Calgary Herald on my picnic table, with a front-page picture of the towers and the plane. After a week of pondering what had happened, I got home and turned on the television. The images I saw were still shocking.
Ten years have come and gone. Next weekend will find us camping in nearby Kananaskis Country. On Sunday, September 11 we will make the drive south to Bear Pond for a day of fishing and remembrance. I will never forget the day we fished, while the world around us changed forever.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Six Things I'm Doing to Destroy the Earth

One day, I found myself day-dreaming about my latest involvements with a favorite environmental organization. I began to feel smug as I counted all the things the organization was doing to educate people about the environment and help make our planet a better place. The self-congratulatory tone of my thoughts soon changed as I pondered my own contributions and I began to weigh those meager efforts against the balance of my life's work. My recent conversion to environmental causes pales in comparison to my damaging lifestyle. Guilt is a terrible thing and perhaps I need to own, if not embrace my evil ways. I decided I would make a list - a brief confession if you will:
1) I was born. Almost immediately I was off to a bad start. My very existence was already contributing to the demise of the world. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if I had been hatched as a peregrine falcon or California condor, but as a human being my contribution to the Earth's bio-mass was sure to be fraught with blame.
2) I am a North American. This one is actually a bit of a relief for me. Like most of my worst character defects and failures - I can blame it on my parents, who brought me to this part of the world in the first place. Actually they may have more than a passing blame for confession number one as well. It is said that we North Americans share more than our proportion of responsibility for the ills of the planet. We contribute more greenhouse gases and suck up and pollute much more than our per capita allocation of air and water. The fact that I am also an Albertan probably puts me well beyond the pale.
3) I drive a car. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I got my driver's license and became the proud owner of my first automobile. Perhaps it wouldn't have been such a happy day if I realized what evil I was about to commit against the environment. My whole life has been built around the automobile. I'm a commuter and I drive 70,000 kilometers a year.  I'm sure some folks might disagree, but this must be the most atrocious habit I have ever developed.
4) I have a job as a technician in the office products industry. The reams of paper I cause to be consumed every day are enough to deforest an immense section of boreal forest. Every machine I repair is likely to consume much more paper than a non-working one, which leaves me in a quandary - to fix or not to fix? I take pride in my work, so I suppose I can boast that my job clears great swaths of pine in order to slow the advance of the mountain pine beetle.
5) I own a cat. At the risk of offending the surly cat lover lobby, I included this one, because studies have shown that kitty isn’t the cute furry pet that we have come to love. They are killing machines. Perhaps we won’t get too up in arms about field mouse predation, but it has been shown that 24 percent of their kills are birds. Our love of felines is contributing to the decimation of native bird species. It’s funny how my cat never brings home invasive species like house sparrows or starlings. Apparently like me, she is very discerning.
6) I can't stop eating. Besides contributing to my considerable girth, this nasty habit probably does more to contribute to greenhouse gas, pollute our waterways and cause the clearance of land and the destruction of whole ecosystems. I used to enjoy a good meal, but now I can barely tolerate it as I struggle to choke down pounds of lovely Alberta beef.

I'm sure I could probably make a longer list of my sins, but my Twenty-first Century attention span doesn't seem to allow for much more (Facebook and Twitter beckon). Besides, thinking about all the ills I have committed takes me out of my "happy place". Being a liberal and an environmentally-conscious Albertan already brings plenty of angst to my life.